March 7, 1970 – Total Solar
(the day, and event, that changed my life)
Greenville, North Carolina
35° 36'N, 77° 22'W
Duration of Totality:
Written on March 8, 2012 (as if it were yesterday):
Forty-Two years, as an abstraction, seems a long time ago,
but March 7, 1970 (18h 31m 52s UT to be precise) is so indelibly etched
in my mind, it seems but a moment ago. That was the instant when
coronal photons first were imaged upon my retinas -- and changed my
life forever. TSE 1970 was "the first" TSE (Total Solar Eclipse) seen
by a number of SEML subscribers other than myself too; to my knowledge
including Fred Espenak, Rick Brown, Freddy Dorst, Bob Slobins, Larry
Stevens, Bernie Verreau and I am sure many others.
For me as then a 14-year old, it was about a 12-hour bus trip
from New York City to Greenville, North Carolina, an overnight in a
local Holiday Inn, and then "setting up" on the football field in the
East Carolina University stadium just a couple of km off centerline.
Dawn broke to a fog so thick you cut it with the proverbial knife - but
without worry (well, mostly without worry) as it "burned off"
completely very soon after sunrise as anticipated leaving steel-blue
clear skies with no hint or threat of cloud -- "in the bag" though one
hates to count on such things, it was indeed one of those rare and
welcome cloud-worry free days.
I had been anticipating THIS event since 1963 (at the age of
7) and in the intervening years had read everything I could get my
hands on about it. I was "well rehearsed" and "well prepared", or so I
thought - practicing over and over again months and weeks ahead of time
how I would spend my 2m 53s of totality splitting my time between
telescope, binoculars, still and movie cameras and "naked eye"
viewing. Every second planned and accounted for. With equipment
set up hours in advance of CI in situ "trial runs" went well.
One thing I had wanted to do was SEE the umbral shadow
approach, so (today I would consider foolish) took up a vantage point
high on up in the stadium stands to watch for that prior to CII and
practiced a dozen times running down to the field and my equipment with
a minute or two to spare with a sprint times of about 40 seconds.
Amazingly, when the time came, and I saw the "wall of darkness" rising
up over the SW horizon, I didn't trip as I ran down the stadium steps
watching the umbra grow darker and closer as the seconds ticked by --
and got back to my equipment all set on the stadium floor with a minute
an a half to spare. I won't recount now that minute and a half which
lasted an eternity (but will comment the shadow bands were absolutely
amazing and as many described for that eclipse with the contrast of
At CII minus 15 seconds, I pulled solar filters off cameras,
telescope, and binoculars in a single much practiced motion that took
only seconds, then looked again skywards with binoculars ready around
my neck and telescope pointed at the Sun as the diamond ring gave rise
to my first pre-CII glimpse at the corona that last photospheric bead
diminished. All set and ready to go, and I was then numbed and
overwhelmed as if a bolt of lightening had struck. I froze like the
proverbial deer in the headlights.
Nothing, I had read, discussed with others, of thought I had learned
about "the event" prepared me for the grandeur of what was happening. I
just stood there limp, binoculars dangling around my neck, telescope
unattended, cameras untouched, and just stared at "the hole in the
sky". I could not have moved if I wanted to - but at that instant I
didn't "want" anything. "Transfixed" is far too inadequate a word.
"Stunned" is probably better.
Time did cease to flow, but somehow, before I knew it ... it was over.
I don't think I moved 1 mm or had dropped my purely naked-eye gaze at
totality for even a second of those 2m 53s of totality. I was literally
shaking as the CIII diamond ring grew brighter and the sky background
swamped the corona. It took me many minutes to recover enough to know
it was over and did not re-connect with the celebrations going on
around me until someone grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me back
into the mundane reality of the time then between fleeting TSEs.
And... THAT (as people sometimes ask) is why I have no photos
of my first TSE, 42 years and 1 day ago. With NO regrets. The mind did
what it knew it had to do - surrender and absorb. And, also, this is
why I always advise anyone who is about to see their 1st TSE to JUST
WATCH -- as if there really was any other choice.
Happy TSE 1970 + 42 years to any/all others who also had
their lives changed on that glorious day.